Needham’s Grand Question to India

Dr Joseph Needham

By Justice Markandey Katju

Dr Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was a brilliant British bio-chemist who had obtained a doctorate from Cambridge University in 1925, specializing in embryology and morphogenesis. Later, Dr. Needham developed an interest in China, and after visiting China several times wrote his mammoth book ‘Science and Civilization in China’ in 24 volumes ( see Simon Winchester’s ‘The Man Who loved China’).

In this book Needham posed the problem, known as ‘Needham’s Question’ or ‘Needham’s Grand Question’, in respect of China, but which applies equally to India.

The problem is this : Why did China (and India), which were far ahead of Western countries in science and technology at one time, later fell behind, did not have an Industrial Revolution, and therefore became backward, and consequently victims of imperialism and colonization, which caused enormous harm and misery to the peoples of these countries ?

There is no doubt that both India and China were at one time far ahead of the Western countries in science and technology.

China invented gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and paper and printing, which, according to Sir Francis Bacon, were the three most important inventions facilitating Europe to pass from the dark Middle Ages to the Modern age. But why did China’s progress in science and technology stop thereafter ? According to Dr. Needham it could have been the Confucian philosophy, which was incompatible with scientific development, which was responsible for this. But is this explanation not superficial ?

As for India, I have explained in my article ‘Sanskrit as a language of Science’ which is on my blog and facebook, that India was far ahead of the West in ancient times.

See also this article published in indicanews.com

For instance, Indians invented the decimal system in mathematics, which was one of the most revolutionary inventions in history.

The numerals in the decimal system were known as Arabic numerals by the Westerners, but the Arabs called them Indian numerals. Were they really Arabic or Indian ?

To answer this we may note that the languages Arabic, Persian, and Urdu are written from right to left. But if we ask an Arab, Persian, or Urdu writer, to write any number ( say 259 or 1379) he will write it from left to right. What does this indicate ? This indicates that these numbers were taken from a language which is written from left to right. And now it is accepted universally that the decimal system was invented in India. This decimal system had a number 0, which again is an India invention. The importance of 0 can be understood by considering the following :

The ancient Romans built a great civilization, the civilization of Caesar and Augustus. But if we were to ask an ancient Roman to write the number one million he would have gone almost crazy. The reason for this is that the ancient Romans wrote their numbers in alphabets, V standing for 5, X standing for 10, L for 50, C for 100, D for 500, and M for 1000 ( or millenium). There was no alphabet expressing a number greater than 1000. So if an ancient Roman had to write 2000 he would have to write MM, if he wanted to write 3000 he had to write MMM, and if he wanted to write one million he had to write M one thousand times.

On the other hand, according to the system invented by the ancient Indians, to write one million one had only to write 1 and then put 6 zeros after that. The ancient Greeks and Romans just did not have the imagination to conceive of a number called 0.

By using 0 our ancient ancestors could conceive of astronomically large numbers. Thus, a sahastra or one thousand had 3 zeros after 1. If we add two more zeros we get one lac, with two more zeros we get one crore, with two more zeros we get one arab, with two more zeros we get one kharab, two more zeros gives us one padma, two more zeros gives one neel, two more zeros gives one shankh, two more gives one mahashankh, etc.

Aryabhatta, who reputedly lived in the 5th Century A.D. worked on quadratic equations, binomial theorem, etc, and calculated the value of pie to a fairly accurate degree. He also made significant contributions to astronomy, being perhaps the first person in the world to prove that the earth rotates on its axis, thus causing day and night.Brahmagupta, Bhaskar, etc also made great contributions in mathematics, etc.

In medical science India was at least 1000, if not 1500, years ahead of any country. Thus, Sushrut, the father of surgery, invented plastic surgery in the 6th century B.C. while the Britishers discovered it only towards the end of the 18th century A. D. during the Anglo-Mysore wars, and that too, from an Indian vaidya who lived near Pune.

The harbour at Lothal in Gujrat, which is regarded as quite modern in its construction, was built around 5000 years ago, and is regarded as part of the Indus valley Civilization.

In my article ‘Sanskrit as a language of Science’ more details are given, and there is a great deal of literature showing our achievements in science and technology in ancient India. We were far ahead of the West at that time. in fact most Europeans (except in Greece and Rome) were living in forests at a time when we had built mighty civilizations with the help of science and technology.

Why, then, did we fall behind the West ? Why did we not have an industrial revolution ? Why was our advance in science and technology blocked, while Europe produced Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Descartes, Robert Boyle, Cavendish, Priestly, Lavoisier, Maxwell, Gauss, Max Planck, Rutherford, Heisenberg, Pauli, Niels Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Chadwick, Madam Curie, Otto Hahn etc in physics, chemistry and mathematics, Willim Harvey, Ross, etc in medicine, Edmund Halley, etc in astronomy, James Hutton in Geology, Hooke, Linnaeus, Buffon, and Darwin in biology, etc. No doubt we produced C. V. Raman, Srinivas Ramanujan, Chandrashekhar, S.N. Bose, etc but these are just a handful

What happened that made in the history of India the development of science and technology less important ( after the great burst of scientific creativity in ancient India), while in the West it became more important ?

This is Needham’s Grand Question for India, yet to be solved. In ‘Sanskrit as a language of Science’ I have attempted an answer, but I am myself not convinced of my own theory. I have suggested the geographical factor, but is this convincing ? I am myself not sure about my own view. Were there other cultural, economic, or historical factors ? A lot of scientific investigation is called for.

(Justice Markandey Katju is former Chairman, Press Council of India and former Judge, Supreme Court of India.)

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